Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys
Southern Cross Group Stadium
With State of Origin fast-approaching, both the North Queensland Cowboys and the Cronulla Sharks will be eager to have an extra two points under their belt given the number of players that will leave both teams. The Sharks are likely to be missing Andrew Fifita, Jack Bird and James Maloney, while the Cowboys will be without Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan and Justin O'Neill on top of their current omissions, most notably Matt Scott.
The Sharks have been doing just enough to get the win in the past weeks, as seen in their 18-14 win over the St George Illawarra Dragons with a 68 per cent completion rate. Despite this they are still sitting in second place on the ladder with a 7-3 win-loss record. Heading into the Origin period the Sharks will either rise to the occasion, putting in complete performances; or drop down the ladder due to their missing representative stars.
The Cowboys' win over the Bulldogs went a long way to getting their season back on track, and it was Michael Morgan who righted their listing ship last week, with the help of returning fullback and hooker Lachlan Coote and Jake Granville. They’ll be eager to get over the Sharks who knocked them out of the finals one shy of the big dance last year, and will need to be pumped up to do it at Shark Park.
Why the Sharks can win: The Sharks seem to be doing just enough to get the job done, and their positon on the ladder is evidence of that. They have strike all over the field, from Valentine Holmes at fullback, to Sosaia Feki and Jack Bird in the centres and Luke Lewis and Wade Graham in the second row. The Sharks operate off the back of their strong forwards, especially Andrew Fafita, while Paul Gallen provides his experienced leadership and contributes a healthy average of 181 run metres per game. The Sharks' formula for field position is evidently successful, and with Maloney and Chad Townsend directing the show it's no surprise they made seven line breaks against the Dragons last week out of only 23 complete sets.
Why the Cowboys can win: They've gained nothing but confidence after beating the huge Bulldogs pack last week, and the Cowboys forwards will need to up their performance in all areas this week to beat the Sharks. They'll have no doubt they can do it, and the Sharks will have a lot more than that to worry about, with Ethan Lowe and Gavin Cooper contributing strong performances, while Coen Hess re-found his form after coming off the bench, scoring two tries. The Cowboys have struggled to execute in previous weeks with Thurston out, but Morgan appears to be riding a wave of confidence after being in the Australian camp with the world's best players. The 92kg five-eighth looked tied-down at halfback, but the return of Coote and Granville added direction to the team and Morgan was able to roam freely. After a shaky start against the Bulldogs, the Cowboys' defence was also unrecognisable from their previous games, missing just 16 tackles and conceding the majority of their points when they were reduced to 12 men.
 Telstra Premiership: Paul Gallen vs Jason Taumalolo
All Run Metres, Tackles, Tackle Breaks, Offloads.
The history: Sharks v Cowboys: Played 41; Sharks 25; Cowboys 16. The Sharks have had it over the Cowboys in the history between these clubs, but the Cowboys will only be thinking about their preliminary final defeat to the Sharks last year.
What are the odds: This is the most even betting game of the round with Sportsbet reporting 52 per cent of money on North Queensland and 4 per cent on Cronulla. Both sides have been backed to win 1-12 with very little interest in 13-plus for either side. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assistant referee: Alan Shortall. Touch Judges: Nick Beashel and Chris Sutton. Review officials: Ben Galea and Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine and Fox League – Live coverage from 7.50pm
How we see it: Given the recent history between these two teams this game could go down to the wire. The Sharks play for every minute, and the Cowboys are a re-built team after the return of Coote and Granville. Despite the confidence boost the Cowboys received from taming the Bulldogs on their home turf, it won't be enough to get over the determined Sharks. We're backing the home side by four.